Having been touted as “the most beautiful love story ever told” upon its release, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is considered an absolute classic by many and deservedly so, ranking right up there with other films established in the so-called “Disney Renaissance,” such as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Aladdin, just to name a few. Adapted from the French fairy tale of the same name, the film follows the tale rather closely, telling the story of a prince who is transformed into a “beast” and the relationship he develops with the woman he imprisons, and later falls in love with. This post will not attempt to argue the love-hate relationship established between its main characters, known simply as “Belle” and “Beast,” nor will it try to somehow twist and turn what is, in essence, a love story between what would seem like two unlikely acquaintances, into some sort of social commentary on abusive relationships, the empowerment of women in said relationships, and so on and so forth. What will however be looked into, is the overall theme the film tries to pass off–of finding the inner beauty in someone through sacrifice and redemption–and how, through its usage of the “fairy tale” backdrop, the film seems to lose this message along the way, however unintentionally, to appeal to a much broader audience, one unwilling to accept any other outcome than what it deems desirable, even if it means turning a kind-hearted Beast back into the cold-hearted prince he once was.
A prince learns the lesson of being humble and kind to those less fortunate than himself the hard way. That’s completely understandable, given the fairy tale atmosphere, especially in a world that all but thrives on the transformation of people into animals to prove a point, especially ones that revolve around true love. Because clearly, talking animals who tell a woman to kiss them is where true love really lies. But where other films merely rehash that premise, Beauty and the Beast takes a different approach. After the opening scene, where the transformative curse is placed upon this prince, we pretty much never see this enchantress-turned-beggar ever again; not even a mention. What we are left with is a symbolic rose, a magic mirror and an entire house full of servants-turned-household furniture. Now granted, the ordeal of reversing the transformation process is an important one for the main character, but it shouldn’t feel like the only motivating factor. What I felt the original French fairy tale did better than Disney’s interpretation, is that it kept the curse aspect of the story a secret until the very end, leaving a sense of mystery behind the Beast’s origin, as well as allowing the audience to believe that this woman, Belle, was falling in love with a Beast, in every sense of the word, further pushing ahead on its theme of loving someone for who he/she is on the inside. There was nothing in the back of one’s head shouting, “It’s okay—he’s not really a Beast. He’ll change. This is after all, a Disney film.” The relationship evolves just the same in both versions, with initial tensions between Belle and the Beast. The gradual mutual understanding the two form, with the Beast rescuing Belle and her, in return, treating his wounds, seems genuine and one buys into the concept immediately, even if we subconsciously, through one scene alone, know that the Beast is suffering from more than just loneliness.
Therein lies my problem. What could’ve been, or at the very least, tries to be, a remarkable and poignant tale of a prince seeking redemption through the sacrifice of love and happiness, thus seeing how that real transformation changes him for the better, seems to fall victim to its own “happily ever after” layout. This is not to say that Belle and the Beast’s relationship shouldn’t have reached the “love” stage, with Belle professing her love to Beast, breaking the curse, or the Beast professing his love of Belle to a clock in one of the film’s most emotional moments. But the end result, watching the Beast almost die, the last petal of the rose crash to the ground, and Belle profess her love, would have had an even bigger impact if the Beast, of whom it should be mentioned he’s never even given a name outside of “Beast,” both survived and didn’t transform back into the hardened prince he was. The story attempts to justify this closure as somewhat of a lesson learned, and how being a Beast is nothing more than imagery, portraying what being an arrogant and selfish person turns one into. But it is through being a Beast for most of his early life, that the Beast learns how to be a true human being. And it is the Beast that Belle falls in love with. This notion that somehow Belle is rewarded for making the right decision is absurd. She fell in love with the Beast. And now that Beast is a prince without a name—not the person she’s grown close to and not the person she’s bonded with. The imagery of seeing a prince with Belle, that same prince we haven’t seen since the beginning of the film itself, seems to be a shot to the arm, insulting to the viewer, as to say, “We told you we wouldn’t keep this guy the Beast the entire film.” More emphasis seems to be given to “being human” rather than behaving like a human being. In a particular scene, the household furniture discusses being scared of the prospect of never transforming back to their servant, human selves. But that’s understood, to be a human being over a clock or a candle stand is a noble desire. But the Beast–that’s who he becomes, who he is, and who he is destined to remain–because it was an important part of his developmental process. Being a prince made him jaded, and cut off to the outside world. And so he was transformed into something that, to the outside world, seems to fit those characteristics better than a human being; an animal, a hybrid between man and animal, a Beast.
It would have been different, had we seen the prince’s early, his not so humble beginnings, showing the audience what turned him into the coldhearted person he was. But none of that is ever shown, or mentioned. We watch an entire film through the eyes of either the Beast or Belle, and how they begin to relate to one another. And it’s not even indicated by the film itself that it wishes to inform Belle of the Beast’s pre-transformation lifestyle. In fact, the film does quite the opposite. Belle isn’t supposed to know of the Beast’s former life as a prince, as she’s supposed to fall in love with the Beast as is, with nothing else but “true love” driving her motivation. When Belle stumbles upon the encased rose, she is scared away by the Beast. And what the original fairy tale does better than the Disney adaptation is that it makes Belle gradually figure out that she does indeed love the Beast she originally despised. On one specific occasion, in both versions, the Beast sends Belle away to her home so she can aid her ailing father, but where the two narratives differ is the ultimate decision for Belle to return back to the Beast. The film has Belle attempting to reason with the townspeople that the Beast is a gentle soul, her friend, only to have them form a mob, lead by Belle’s spurned lover to kill the Beast. In the fairy tale, there is no villain to speak of, so when Belle returns to her home to see her family, she begins to feel bad about overstaying because she promised Beast she’d only be there a week. She feels so bad in fact, that when she notices in the magic mirror that the Beast is dying, she rushes over to him and professes her love. It works, in the context of the story, because it’s a genuine emotion, expressed from the heart, at being away from someone she’s gotten close to. The entire subplot of the spurned lover and the town’s revolt against the Beast only draws attention away from the real love story unfolding every time Belle and the Beast are present on screen.
There are those who will argue, that it’s just a love story between the beauty and the beast, hence the title, but an important component to the film is the transformation. After all, the whole reason the prince is transformed in the first place is because he refuses to help an elderly beggar who appears “ugly.” But I’d like to argue that why couldn’t the enchantress have been doing the Beast a favor? By turning him into what he himself despised and teaching him the lesson of lost love and the idea that one can very much spend an entire lifetime being lonely, with no one to ever reciprocate love back, seems like the bigger message here. In the scene where Belle discovers the rose, she also notices a portrait of a prince, with familiar blue eyes, but with huge gashes torn through it. It symbolized something the Beast hates, or has grown to hate: himself. He seems to have moved on, and the only thing that scene emphasizes is the fact that Belle can start to somewhat, however lightly, connect the dots. It feels like a cop out scene, if only to have Belle realize that maybe there is, in fact, a reward to be had by falling love. But the image of the Beast scaring her away and the rose, symbolizes that the Beast himself no longer likes to think back to that time in his life anymore. Granted, it could all very well be pent up rage, but it makes sense for the Beast to learn to eventually live with himself as is. He very much feels a void in his life, the lack of love turning him into perhaps an even colder person than he was pre-transformation, but connecting to Belle changes all that, and he does it, through the Beast persona. There are those who would argue that he was merely doing it so he could return to his human self again. But would that not be a selfish reason to fall in love? Wouldn’t the entire premise of true love be hereby rendered false, or at the very least, under false pretenses? It doesn’t make sense. There was simply no reason for the Beast to turn back into a human being just because he and Belle were in love. The Beast should’ve come back to life, having found true love and then set his servants free from their current forms. This way, the message of love conquers all, even mere appearances, and the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder still stands true, even more so now, that the Beast remained the Beast and Belle remained with the Beast. Having the Beast turn back into the prince does nothing more than harkens back to a plot point that was never mentioned again after the opening of the film and would have been better suited to be a mere curse rather than a reason to have the film end with the obligatory prince and princess dance around a spectacular ballroom while onlookers stand by. Imagine how iconic the last frames of the film would be if it was Belle and the Beast, reprising their earlier dance.
Numerous films have attempted to explain the logic that physical appearances mean nothing when it comes to love, yet almost all of them fall back into the tradition of having one of the characters “grow” by reaching a level of acceptable physical appearance. She’s All That attempted to turn the free spirited art student into a prom queen and Shrek, relying on breaking every Disney convention, had the unlovable ogre fall in love with a princess he never cares for, only to turn said princess into a bloody ogre as well. It’s as if people just aren’t prepared to see a monster and a beauty, or any woman for that matter, fall in love with a hideous looking C.H.U.D., with the only notable exception being Frankenstein and his wife, but she was built that way. It seems that in animation, it’s just easier to follow the “true love” formula if there’s two attractive people in the lead, where as in live action, the audience is all but willing to see Katherine Heigl with Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), or Jonah Hill with Emma Stone (Superbad). That’s particularly okay, because we can somehow relate to real people who may not be physically desirable, but when it comes to animation, the double standard applies itself in spades. Would the film have suffered if it hadn’t changed the Beast back? It’s highly doubtful, as it was a Disney film and the ending would still remain a rather happy one, with the two lovers reuniting. But unlike The Little Mermaid before it, Beauty and the Beast chose to change itself for the sake of the viewer. In The Little Mermaid, it made sense that Ariel would have to give up being a mermaid if she ever wanted to imagine a life with Prince Eric. But there’s no such sacrifice needed from Belle. She’s merely to love unconditionally this Beast, who is still not given a name, even after he becomes the prince society deems he should become. And isn’t that real tragedy of it all—that beauty was the beast—that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, yet that eye belongs to Beast, but Beauty never will.